Hitchhiking to the Promised Land
and an Introduction to Chicken Rustling

part one of two

It was early September in 1970 and I was at work in a dusty office close to Victoria Station in London. I could hear the oompha-oompha of an army band passing outside. I was a junior accounting clerk in a small hotel reservation agency and my window overlooked the route taken by the Queen's Own Guards on their way to Buckingham Palace for the pomp and circumstance show-off; The Changing of the Guard Ceremony. Royalty as a tourist attraction. Every day, around 11 am they passed, without fail. Normally that would be the only break in my somewhat dull routine of reconciling ancient ledgers, entering the days' bookings and calculating our meager 10% commission. I did not have a quill and an inkpot, but nor were there computers at the time. Only sometimes was I allowed to check my additions on an ancient calculator that resembled a Las Vegas one-armed bandit. Cha-ching!

But that day, just as the enthusiastic cymbals receded into the distance, one of my co-workers, a cute Swedish girl named Ingalill, burst in. Do we know of a vacant upscale hotel room in London for the following week, she asked innocently. A suite preferably. This was not easy as London was full of tourists at the time and hotel rooms were scarce. But I knew that the Cumberland Hotel overlooking Marble Arch had a cancellation of a suite that morning so I called them to see if the suite was still available. It was, and quickly I summoned Ingalill so we could formally make the booking. "Guest Name", asked the disembodied voice at the Cumberland. I asked Ingalill and she said:
"Hendrix, first name Jimi". This was special, but not that unusual as we occasionaly handled lodging requests for one of the biggest entertainment agencies in London. We completed the booking and I felt good to be able to contribute. And to get a break from those infernal ledgers ...

Some ten days later on my way to work, I saw the newspaper headlines "Jimi Hendrix Found Dead". I took the newspaper to the office and asked if they's heard. Ingalill evidently was not on the clue train because she shouted: "Great, the Cumberland will have a free suite tonight!".

Anyway, Jimi did not die in his hotel room that day. It happened somewhere else, but I always felt: "What if I'd found him a room on another side of town, in another hotel..." It's futile, of course, but you can't help thinking...what if.

I spent only a year with the hotel booking agency, but it was a very important time. It was my first office job, I had to communicate in English (even on the phone – the horror!). Later I was told that I came close to getting fired as I was slow to grasp the intricacies of accounting and working these huge ledgers. But, once I got the concept, it was a piece of cake. I also became the only one who could operate our brand new two-step copy machine. Hey, I could coax copies out of that thing better than anyone.

But the agency also served as a social introduction medium. There were good and bad parts to this. The good part was that I was surrounded by girls from different countries. I dated some of them. The bad part was that as a teenager, I was making very little money. After a night out with one of the girls, I starved for two weeks because I spent everything on one dinner at Chez Luba Bistro in Kensington. Then the agency hired a Czech girl, and everybody made sure to point her out to me. She was a bit older, maybe 25, imagine, and she was a lot more sophisticated than I was. She always talked about "giving a party for 200", or "arranging a soiree for 100". She lived in decent digs in Balcombe Street in Paddington. She was into the society thing but that did not help her at the agency. When the agency discovered that she was Jewish, Tullio the Italian, one of the principals, fired her on the spot .
Tullio was a creepy anti-semitic fucker and Tullio was the his real first name. I regret I do not remember his last name.

Then the Royal Mail postal workers went on strike. The accounting department could not send out invoices for commission to the hotels, so they needed to be hand delivered. I volunteered immediately. At nine am, armed with a sheaf of envelopes, I'd go to the best hotels in London; The Savoy, The Ritz, The London Hilton, The Dorchester in Park Lane, and the doyenne of them all, Claridges. I now had a purpose to go in, and sample the luxury. Usually I'd just leave my envelope, but sometimes after introducing myself, I'd get a tour and a lunch, maybe. Never mind that I was still broke; a year earlier I was no one in a filthy factory and now I was on the same turf as the rich and the famous. I was nineteen years old.

At Christmas 1970 the entire agency was invited to a formal dinner at The Inn on The Park, a new high-end hotel in Park Lane. I was a bit nervous about the banquet protocol at an event like this, but from my previous dancing classes I had the basics; like which fork to use with which hand and not slurping the water out of a finger bowl, should there be one. First we were served cocktails and offered a tour of the hotel. I've never seen so many gold-plated plumbing fixtures. In a couple of years, Howard Hughes and his Mormon entourage, would move into the top floor of this hotel and live there in a bizarre cocoon for about a year. Eventually, emboldened by the cocktails and dazzled by the luxury, we returned for the dinner. It started harmlessly with appetizers. The soup followed. Mindful not to slurp or otherwise mismanage the tricky aerial ballet between the soup spoon, my mouth and the plate, I moved my soup plate close to me. The disaster components were now set. I dropped my spoon on the floor. Instead of leaving it there and getting another, I started to bend down to retrieve it before anyone noticed. The trajectory prescribed by my head was on a collision course with the edge of my soup plate and my forehead struck the edge, elegantly toppling the fine china - and it's noodly contents - on my head. Determined to complete the task, I retrieved the spoon and in an effort not to appear in discomfort, I balanced the soup plate on my head as a kind of a stylish helmet. Covered in noodles, parsley and soupy fluids, I was escorted out of the banquet hall and given a room in which to clean up. It too had gold plated- plumbing fixtures, but that was poor consolation.

The following day it was back to the dusty office and the dreaded ledgers. The office was directly across the street from the city terminal of British Overseas Airways Company, the long haul airline. Starting in the spring, I could see hordes of suntanned, carefree Americans and Australians with red nylon backpacks pouring out of the terminal. I wanted so much to be like them; instead I was a latter day Bob Cratchit. I was determined to have an adventure, to travel, a change of scenery. But I was still so desperately poor that on a couple of occasions I slept in the office. That was no problem, I had a key, but I had no idea that immediately below me was the security detail office which was manned all night. I was almost discovered and ended up spending the rest of the night completely motionless, barely breathing on the creaky floor beneath my desk

At the time I had a Swedish girlfriend–no, not the airhead Ingalill–and we decided to go to Israel for a bit. Lise Lotte was also eager to get out of London. One of my Czech friend's father was some kind of a powerful official in the Israeli government and he was given the authority to populate several villages in Israel with young couples. The fact that neither of us was Jewish was a minor detail we chose to ignore. The potential settlers were to be given free housing, food, work and a generous cash allowance. To us, it sounded like a paid vacation in the sun. I'd made some money on a charter flight transaction so one evening we found ourselves on a flight to Milan, Italy. We had the requisite red nylon backpacks (bought at Harrods, no less) and a roll of cash that was temporarily hidden in my shoe. We also had a plan. It was a hare-brained scheme, really. We wanted to travel to the southern tip of Italy to a port called Brindisi and from there we'd take a ship or a ferry to Israel.

We never made it to Brindisi.. From Milan, we hitchhiked to the seaside resort town of Alassio, where I liberated the cash from my shoe and merrily started spending it. We stayed in a nice hotel, we rented a small boat, we had dinner in the finest restaurants and...within about 10 days we spent almost everything. The furthest south we made it was Rome, where some creepy Italian offered us money if we would have sex in front of him in a park. That was not exactly the kind of a job we had in mind. Unable to find a source of income, we decided to go to Spain, where Lise Lotte had friends that we could, in theory at least, stay with and maybe get jobs in one of the numerous hotels. There was a huge fly in that particular ointment. My Czechoslovak passport. The Czechs were pariahs in Europe, they had no money to spend and every country required complicated visas that also cost money we did not have. Lise Lotte, being Swedish, did not have this problem.

Almost penniless, and without any meaningful prospects, we traveled along the Italian and French Riviera. Remarkably, not only did we survive; we lived a decent, if nomadic existence. Out of sheer desperation, I turned to criminal activity. Again.


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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions
karel@bouncingczech.com